The outrageous and provocatively sexual Devilries of the famed French artist. Be warned: this is still eye-popping stuff.
For much of his career, Eugène Lepoittevin was a respected and serious artist, known for his maritime paintings and works for the historical museum at Versailles that had been commissioned by the French government. His work is on show in numerous French museums, including the Louvre, while other paintings reside in the collections of the British Museum, the V&A, the Rijksmuseum and elsewhere. He was, by any stretch of the imagination, an important – if not a revolutionary – figure in art history. In 1843, his importance was made official as he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in France, the nation’s highest award. Yet just two years later, a collection of his work was banned and ordered to be destroyed by the same authorities. How could this be?
Well, Lepoittevin, like many artists, had his playful side and this was expressed in his ‘diableries’ – which, as regular readers will know, are a form of cartoonish, humorous portrayals of demons, devils and other subterranean figures having a great deal of fun. This in itself was not especially controversial – though perhaps seen as a low form of art and frowned upon by religious figures – but Lepoittevin’s illustrations from the 1830s were of a decidedly raunchy nature. How raunchy? Well, we’ve still issued a content warning (or at least as close as we get to content warnings) for them in 2022 and if we weren’t already on various blacklists for – ahem – ‘explicit content’, we certainly will be after running this piece. And we’re not even publishing the raunchiest images. Some people have no sense of humour and unfortunately, they tend to be the ones in charge of censorship rules.
Lepoittiven’s unrestrainedly lewd imps and devils appeared in several collections of lithographs that were published between 1830 and 1835, a period when censorial rules were briefly relaxed in France. They became – of course – something of a sensation amongst those who got to see them. That was, as you might expect, a somewhat restricted audience – the hoi polloi were not allowed such pleasures even if they could afford them. But then, neither were the elites as time went on, with at least two volumes of his work being seized and destroyed as obscene. It’s not hard to see why – the illustrations show playful devils tormenting and tempting humans, often leading otherwise chaste women astray with outsized organs and the suggestion of delirious pleasures that mere men could never provide. We should, perhaps, avoid reading too much political commentary into these illustrations – though Lepoittevin was also producing some pointed non-erotic political satire around this time as well – but as we all know only too well, pornography/erotica (and you can decide for yourself which category these fit into, should you be inclined to make that distinction) is often condemned and censored entirely because it emphasises female sexual power and desire, a desire that the censorial can never hope to satisfy. When the moralists say that they are banning porn to protect women, surely no one is actually fooled – they are clearly doing so because the idea of sexually active, sexually provocative women goes against their idea of women as the helpless, innocent victims of male lust. The only real protection of women involved in the censorship of erotic imagery and writing is a decidedly religious and paternal protection from their own sexuality and the power that it gives them.
Lepoittevin’s work had a major influence – you can see elements of it in the work of Aubrey Beardsley and other satirists of the time copied him directly. His influence has continued in curious ways – his image of a winged penis led to the design of the Erotic Awards trophy that was handed out at the event during the 1990s. Oddly though, his work has slipped into relative obscurity over the years – these Devilries were still considered obscene well into the second half of the 20th Century (in 1951, a collection en route to sexologist Alfred Kinsey was seized by US customs* and it’s unlikely that anyone would openly publish these images before the 1970s) and his more respectable paintings are rather unfashionable today. They emerge in odd places though – collections of vintage erotic art often have one or two examples, though they rarely discuss just how important or influential these pieces are. More significant is the rather beautiful little book Bawdy Tales & Trifles of Devilries for Ladies and Gentlemen of Experience, which takes highlights of the collections and combines them with erotic poems, limericks and jokes that perfectly match the absurd and lascivious humour of the artwork. It’s the best collection of Lepoittevin’s work that you’ll currently find – and that includes his more serious paintings, which have not been collected in print for some time (if ever). I’m not sure what he might think of that – but hopefully, he would see the humour in the situation… because if these outrageous images tell us anything, it’s that Eugène Lepoittevin had a wicked sense of humour.
* An appeal led to the material being released in 1958, with the proviso that it be kept under lock and key, accessible only to bona fide researchers and academics. To this day, the Kinsey Institute remains a hidden gem of vintage erotica that only the most serious researcher can examine, despite the fact that similar material is now widely available.
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